Too many students use the same metric to evaluate the ways they’re spending their time outside of class—will this look good to colleges? Most knowledgeable counselors—and colleges themselves—will tell you that this is the wrong metric to use and the wrong question to ask. There is no existing list of activities, hobbies, or other uses of your time that colleges universally consider good or better than any other. So if you want to check in with yourself and evaluate if you’re spending your time in ways that will pay off (regardless of how you would define paying off), here are three questions to focus on.
1. What are my strengths?
Finding fulfilling activities means knowing something about yourself. What are you predisposed to do well? When do you feel like you’re in the flow, performing at a high level and feeling energized by the experience? Whether your answer is talking to customers at the drive-thru window, working through calculus problems, or performing on a stage, if the act of doing it makes you feel energized today and eager to do even more of it tomorrow, it’s probably tapping into your existing strengths. Research has also shown that strengths improve more than weaknesses do. So if you’re looking to stand out, you’re better off doubling down on an existing strength than you are trying to polish a perceived imperfect weakness.
2. Do I get to use my strengths here?
If you’ve identified your strengths, it’s worth considering if you’re getting to use them within each activity. And if you’re not using them, is it because you’ve chosen the wrong activity, or because you’re not finding ways to use them within that activity? Your skills that make people enjoy working together aren’t being put to use if the club you joined seems to hold meetings but not do much else. Could you volunteer to organize a group to take on one of the club’s important projects? Whenever possible, find a way to put your strengths to use. And if you can’t, consider if your time might be happier and more productive spent doing something else.
3. Am I enjoying my experience?
Participating in your chosen activities should make you happy. If you genuinely hate going to volleyball practice or playing the viola or taking kung fu classes, the net effect seems negative whether or not you’re using your strengths. And consider the alternative scenario—maybe you love participating in something that you’re not particularly good at. Some of the most compelling essays I’ve ever read were from kids who loved an activity even though they were nowhere near great at it, like the slowest runner on the cross country team or the student who began his essay, “Artistically, I peaked in kindergarten,” but had spent several years taking art classes anyway just because he enjoyed them.
Most importantly, all of these questions keep the focus on the most important factor—you. Worry less about what colleges will appreciate. Worry more about finding ways to spend your time that you will appreciate.